Government & Politics

ConnectHome program will bring free Internet service to Kansas City public housing residents

On Wednesday evening in Durant, Okla., President Barack Obama spoke to the Choctaw Nation about expanding Internet service and other economic opportunities for underprivileged communities across the nation.
On Wednesday evening in Durant, Okla., President Barack Obama spoke to the Choctaw Nation about expanding Internet service and other economic opportunities for underprivileged communities across the nation. The Associated Press

A new program to connect public housing residents to the Internet and outfit them with Web-capable hardware will launch this year in Kansas City and 27 other communities across the country.

In conjunction with a White House announcement, Google Fiber said it will deliver free hookups in the Kansas City area as part of the program, which is aimed particularly at children and at training low-income families to make use of the Internet.

The ConnectHome program will link 275,000 households, and 200,000 children, with broadband access in 28 communities. Those include the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, where President Barack Obama traveled Wednesday evening to introduce the program.

“It’s not just making the Internet more accessible,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro told reporters as the White House unveiled the program. “It’s making it more meaningful for students and parents by providing digital literacy training.”

Google Fiber didn’t say when it will wire the housing units or how many it will connect to the Internet, but the company said its efforts will resemble work it has done in Austin, Texas, where it has begun to offer free service — with no installation fees — in public housing.

The company already offers what it bills as “free” service to residential customers in neighborhoods where it sells more expensive, and faster, broadband. In those cases, customers who pay $300 for installation — broken down into $25 monthly payments for a year — pay no other fees for service for at least seven years.

That service, and the no-installation-fee service it provides to public housing in Austin, delivers download speeds of 5 megabits per second and 1 mbps uploads.

“This is just what you need to close the digital divide” between Internet haves and have-nots, said Michael Liimatta, the co-founder and CEO of Connecting for Good. His organization has provided free wireless Internet connections to 400 households in the Kansas City area, delivered some 2,000 refurbished computers to the poor and given computer literacy training to 3,000 people since 2011.

“If you want to make an impact on the digital divide,” he said, “you want to do it with the people in public housing.”

Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Mo., applauded the effort.

“Affordable Internet service is necessary in today’s world in order to access education, employment opportunities and fully participate in our communities,” he said.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers says 4G wireless broadband is available to 98 percent of Americans. However, many low-income households are unable to take advantage of this even if they own a computer because they do not have home Internet subscriptions. Almost three-fourths of students in Kansas City Public Schools have no Internet service in their homes.

“ConnectHome will help bridge the digital divide at its widest point,” inside the home, said Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council.

Communities were chosen for the pilot program based on a record of trying to increase broadband access in the past. Zients and Castro said the program could be expanded in the future if it is successful.

The program will be a partnership among communities, the federal government and the private sector, with most of the funding coming from nonprofits and private companies. The only federal funding comes from a $50,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and will go entirely to program operations in the Choctaw Nation, where Obama visited Wednesday.

Google Fiber, CenturyLink, Cox Communications and Sprint will offer free or discounted home Internet access to qualifying homes in the selected cities. Nonprofits and businesses such as Best Buy, GitHub, the 80/20 Foundation, Age of Learning Inc. and the Boys & Girls Club of America will provide free digital literacy training and online educational children’s programs.

The program, along with the federal ConnectED focused on online education, aims to get Internet access into 99 percent of American schools by 2017. It’s part of Obama’s pledge to upgrade the country’s technical capabilities and make it more internationally competitive.

“Participation in the global economy requires access to the tools of the digital economy,” Zients said.

Castro echoed the point, noting that 90 percent of college applications and 80 percent of job listings are now online.

“Technology has truly transformed how we live, how we learn and how we work,” he said. “We need to ensure America remains the land of opportunity in a changing global landscape.”

While the ConnectED program has gotten more Internet access in schools, that “level of access needs to follow our children from school to home,” Castro said.

The Star’s Scott Canon contributed to this report.